In this excerpt from his book The Gated Republic, Shankkar Aiyar talks about how persistent disillusionment with a failing system is driving Indian masses away from government services.
The word exodus owes its etymology to the Greek word ‘exodos’. It is used to describe the final scene of a play, particularly a tragedy; a blend of the prefix ‘ex’ and ‘hodos’ can also mean ‘road’ or ‘way’. In modern English usage, exodus characterizes mass departure.
The pictorially eloquent noun illustrates the context of The Gated Republic, the phenomenon of mass exit, of millions of Indians disinvesting from faith in government delivery of services. Exodus is that mass exit towards and into gated solutions, each a republic of its own. Millions of Indians are disinvesting from hope in the government’s promises and adopting alternatives in the wake of such glaring public policy failures. And as this happens, the gap between governance and its people is visibly widening pan-India and deepening in scale, across income segments and sectors.
It is not that politicians and successive governments are not aware of this exodus. On 22 July 2019, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, BJP MP, asked the HRD ministry if it was aware of the fall in enrolment of students in government schools. The reply was shocking. In just four years, between 2014 and 2018, the number of students enrolled in government schools fell by 12.4 million,1 from 144.9 million to 131.7 million – that is more than the entire school student population of the UK.
And how did private schools fare? Umesh G. Jadhav, BJP MP from Karnataka, asked the government about the enrolment of students in private schools. In just five years, enrolment in private schools shot up from 69.31 million to 83.30 million in 2018.
In his seminal thesis Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, political economist Albert Hirschman proposes that dissatisfied citizens can stay loyal despite the dysfunctionalities and voice their protest or exit from the system. Exits and voices of protest are signals for the state to recognize disillusionment and can be opportunities to take corrective action. In the Indian context, neither facts nor opinion, neither exit nor voice has materially altered the landscape of failure.
The world over, the migration to private paid-for services is driven by rising income levels. In India, the migration of taxpaying citizens entitled to public services is driven by falling levels of service. The dilution and decimation in accountability propels the exit of even those who cannot afford to do so – over six of ten students in the poor and populous state of Uttar Pradesh attend private schools. The poor and the middle class who cannot afford to pay also cannot afford to stay, given the risks it entails.
N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder-chairman of Infosys, recalls, ‘One day around 50 women employees, who maintain the campus, came with a request. They all wanted me to get their children admission in English-medium private schools. And they were willing to spend a significant part of their salaries on the fees. They were sacrificing their present for a better future for their children.’
Over the years, India has been witnessing the clothing of failures in alibis of scale and complexity, the repackaging of old and tired ideas with new targets and incremental tinkering. This is a crisis of governance; it is a crisis of unimaginable proportions as the research for this book – finding and reading voluminous reports, dredging historical and real-time (as real as it can get in the Indian circumstance) data, interviewing experts – reveals. In response, the political class consistently sells allocations as outcomes. Their maxim, ‘money answereth all things’, throws some more taxpayer money at a problem and has also emasculated the public’s interrogation of policy and process.
The factoids that follow symbolize failures – the persistence of pathos which stems from either political apathy or callousness or both.
Lack of teachers – due to chronic absenteeism and vacant posts – has been identified as affecting the education of India’s children. But neither the issue of absenteeism nor vacant posts gets addressed. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated slogan ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ (protect the girl child’s future by sending her to school), in June 2018, all the twenty-four girl students in a school in Kabrel village near Hisar failed in their matriculation exam. The village school had no teacher of science, mathematics, Hindi or Sanskrit, while the social science teacher of the village had been sent to another school on deputation. Over 11.13 lakh teacher posts are vacant in primary, secondary and higher secondary schools as of 2019.
In July 2019, the girl students of a school in Manesar in Haryana had to file a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court for protection to attend school – the lack of security and boundary walls encouraged sexual harassment on the way to school and creepy characters to peep into their classes. Of the 10.94 lakh government schools, 4.36 lakh do not have a boundary wall. Notwithstanding the grand-standing about Swachh Bharat (clean India), over 58,800 schools lack toilets for boys and 31,700 schools lack a toilet for girls. The definition of total electrification calls for every public institution and facility to be connected and provided with electricity. Yet, of the 10.94 lakh schools, over 4.6 lakh schools do not have electricity.
The poor state of healthcare is manifest in the tragic death of children in government hospitals – 134 in Rajkot and eighty-five in Ahmedabad in Gujarat and 107 in Kota in Rajasthan. India’s six lakh villages must make do with one health sub-centre for three villages and one of five required centres is yet to be set up. The deficit in public spending results in Indians meeting as much as 64 per cent of healthcare costs out of their own pockets. India not only does worse than its BRICS peers in public healthcare spending but also heavily indebted poor countries as per World Bank data.
India has a new ministry for water, Jal Shakti, which literally means water power. Pankaj Choudhary, BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, asked the minister of Jal Shakti how many rural homes get piped water. Rural India has 178.71 million households. Only 32.76 million households – that is just over 18.33 per cent of homes – get piped water supply. Translated, nearly 730 million people – more than twice the population of the US – are living without access to piped water.
India is staring at the spectre of a full-blown water crisis. Chennai and Bengaluru have already made it to international headlines as tech-savvy but waterless cities. Meanwhile, one in five urban local bodies and major metros like Patna, Chandigarh, Delhi, Pune, Indore, Nashik, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kota, Ludhiana, Agra, Ghaziabad and Hyderabad are facing a water crisis. India ranks thirteenth among seventeen ‘extremely high water-risk countries’ – among the five worst placed, with a population larger than all sixteen countries put together.